As Ga. hospitals begin vaccinations, state learns it will get fewer doses

Georgia was among several states Thursday to report that their expected allotments of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines for the coming weeks . have been cut by 40%, amid conflicting explanations and denials from the federal vaccination operation and Pfizer. Hospitals in several Georgia locations are overflowing with patients but short on nurses to care for them. Gov. Brian Kemp announced that he had agreed with state House and Senate leaders to extend extra staffing efforts for hospitals and nursing homes. The state has put $250 million of its federal pandemic relief funding into a contract with the Jackson Healthcare staffing agency for this year . and state leaders agreed to dedicate nearly $70 million more in order to extend the workforce through early March. The number of people currently hospitalized statewide stood at 3,237 on Thursday afternoon

News comes as state sets records for COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations

Georgia hospitals from Atlanta to Albany to Gainesville to Conyers finally began long-awaited vaccinations of their own workers Thursday, and a second vaccine candidate won an important endorsement. But as sparks of hope appeared, the state also faced new challenges in battling the pandemic and a grave increase in cases.

Georgia was among several states Thursday to report that their expected allotments of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines for the coming weeks have been cut by 40%, amid conflicting explanations and denials from the federal vaccination operation and Pfizer.

Hospitals in several Georgia locations are overflowing with patients but short on nurses to care for them. And the state Thursday recorded an all-time record of net new COVID-19 confirmed and probable cases, at 7,777.

ExploreThe latest news on the coronavirus vaccines

Mixed emotions were on full display at Piedmont Rockdale Hospital in Conyers, where five health care workers from across the Piedmont system sat down to get vaccinated. The hospital is one of 13 in Georgia reporting their emergency room crowding as severe.

“We want to get the vaccine because we’re exhausted,” said Dr. Gayla Dillard, a surgeon at Piedmont Healthcare, who got vaccinated Thursday. She has a colleague in the ICU with COVID-19, whose trachea tube operation she had to do.

Shannan Browning, a neonatal ICU nurse, came to tears after getting her shot at Piedmont. “Just knowing how hard my coworkers are working,” she said. “It’s really the ICU nurses, the ER nurses, the nurses on (regular hospital wards), the respiratory therapists...nurses work a 12 to 13-hour shift every day anyway. But they’re working those many more days a week than they normally do. And those days are just constant.”

ExploreComplete coverage of COVID-19 in Georgia

Gov. Brian Kemp acknowledged the hospitals’ plight as he visited Grady Memorial Hospital Thursday to watch the state’s public health commissioner, Dr. Kathleen Toomey, receive the vaccine shot herself and to announce continued funding for temporary staff.

Watching the vaccinations after nine months of managing the state’s pandemic response, he said, “It’s almost overwhelming, quite honestly.”

State Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey and Gov. Brian Kemp look on as Grady ICU nurse Norma Poindexter receives her COVID-19 vaccination Thursday.  Dr. Toomey was vaccinated next. (PHOTO by Steve Schaefer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
State Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey and Gov. Brian Kemp look on as Grady ICU nurse Norma Poindexter receives her COVID-19 vaccination Thursday. Dr. Toomey was vaccinated next. (PHOTO by Steve Schaefer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

He announced that he had agreed with state House and Senate leaders to extend extra staffing efforts for hospitals and nursing homes, appearing to refer to a contract with the Jackson Healthcare staffing agency that was set to expire. The state has put $250 million of its federal pandemic relief funding into the contract for this year. The state leaders agreed to dedicate nearly $70 million more in order to extend the workforce through early March, Kemp said.

“Today I can tell you the state has done everything in its power to support our hospitals on this front,” Kemp said.

Shortages, and a surge

Left unspoken: It’s still not enough.

The number of people currently hospitalized statewide stood at 3,237 on Thursday afternoon, according to Nancy Nydam, a DPH spokeswoman. It’s a new single-day high, breaking Wednesday’s record.

On a daily basis more than a dozen hospitals in the state have reported ICU’s so full they refuse to take more patients. Hospital leaders have said that the top reason is not physical space, but a shortage of critical care nurses.

Dr. Gayla Dillard, seated at the far left, is a surgeon with Piedmont Healthcare.  She received her vaccination against COVID-19 Thursday, one of Piedmont's first five workers to be vaccinated.  Dr. Dillard has had to do surgery on one of her own friends seriously ill with the disease. (PHOTO by Ariel Hart / ahart@ajc.com)
Dr. Gayla Dillard, seated at the far left, is a surgeon with Piedmont Healthcare. She received her vaccination against COVID-19 Thursday, one of Piedmont's first five workers to be vaccinated. Dr. Dillard has had to do surgery on one of her own friends seriously ill with the disease. (PHOTO by Ariel Hart / ahart@ajc.com)

Credit: PHOTO by Ariel Hart / ahart@ajc.com

Credit: PHOTO by Ariel Hart / ahart@ajc.com

“Staffing is our greatest challenge, particularly nurses,” said Rebecca Sylvester, a spokeswoman for University Health Care System in Augusta, which is busting all-time records daily for COVID-19 patients.

“We have had to close beds on occasion because of limited staff. We are holding virtual recruitment fairs that have netted a few new staff just in the past couple of weeks, and are calling former nurses to offer incentives for them to return for a few shifts a month.

“It is hard to maintain the intensity — physically and emotionally — required especially to care for COVID patients. When staff stepped up and volunteered for those units, they never dreamed we’d still be in the midst of a pandemic more than nine months later.”

Vaccines: a green light and a roadblock

As of Thursday morning, Sylvester still had no update on when her hospital would receive the vaccine.

Distribution of the state’s first 84,000 Pfizer doses this week made headlines but did not spread far. One hospital, the private company Cancer Treatment Centers of America, reported receiving enough doses to vaccinate every single employee. Most who received vaccines, however, reported getting just enough to choose a few highly exposed front-line workers.

“We’ve got more people wanting to take the vaccine than we got to give right now,” Kemp told reporters.

The Fulton County Board of Health received its first batch of the Pfizer vaccine on Thursday, 600 of the 2,750 doses it ordered, said Dr. Lynn Paxton, head of the state-run Fulton board of health.

It’s great news, but Paxton said she’s still trying to manage expectations.

“There’s simply not enough vaccine to immunize everyone, and we are having to be very, very measured in how we are going to get this out to the people who most need it,” Paxton told Fulton’s elected county commissioners on Wednesday.

One piece of good news is that the second vaccine to seek emergency use authorization in the U.S., Moderna’s, passed an advisory committee’s review at the Food and Drug Administration Thursday by a vote of 20-0, with one abstention. If the vaccine gets the final endorsements as expected, Georgia officials say the state will get 174,000 doses to begin with.

ExploreAnswers to your questions about the COVID-19 vaccines

That vaccine doesn’t require the super-cold storage of Pfizer’s, which will allow vaccination campaigns to reach into rural areas which may lack the required freezers and the population density to use the doses before they spoil.

However, states said that the suppliers of the Pfizer vaccine, whose doses are arriving on loading docks now, have let states know that their expected allocations in the coming days would be cut. Pfizer reduced the second allocation to Georgia to 60,000 doses, rather than the 99,000 doses the state had previously been told it would receive, said Department of Public Health spokeswoman Nancy Nydam.

The federal officials managing the distribution traded excuses with Pfizer, which insisted to the Washington Post that the vaccines were sitting ready for distribution as soon as the U.S. paperwork arrived. A spokesperson for the federal response told the AJC that there were no reductions because the only official allocation amounts were the ones given this week.

The shifting numbers make planning a vaccination campaign a struggle. Hospitals have had to schedule vaccination clinics and put them on hold.

“This is going to be a heavy logistical lift for the state,” Kemp said. “We have never undergone such a large mass vaccination campaign in our history. And just as there has been in each new chapter of the pandemic response issues, there will be challenges and hurdles that we have to clear.”

Every day counts.

So far, DPH has reported 9,358 confirmed coronavirus deaths and 936 “probable” COVID-19 deaths. DPH reported 56 new confirmed deaths on Thursday and 10 others deemed probable COVID-19 deaths.

AJC Staff Writers J. Scott Trubey, Ben Brasch and Eric Stirgus contributed to this article.

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